Are Things really getting better?

As the year 2018 is drawing to a close I want to look back to determine whether it was a good year. The question that immediately comes to mind is whether the term good applies to a global quality of human life or whether, in considering this matter, we must be more modest and limit the adjective’s meaning to a quality of goodness in a more limited sense, i.e., to select smaller groups of humanity on our planet.

Best selling author, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, Steven Pinker’s 556 page book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, (Viking, 2018), addresses itself to the above question.

Before I share with you my opinion on both the question and Pinker’s book, I want to refer you to an excellent critique of the book by Joshua Rothman in his extensive article entitled “The Big Question: Is the world getting better or worse?” in the

July 23, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, (pp.26-32).

Steve Pinker is an erudite writer. Those 556 pages are chock full of valuable information, The text is well documented by means of statistics and graphs and shows that our world, contrary to many modern pundits’ lurid headlines and even prophecies, is not falling apart. In what the write up in the dust jacket describes as an “elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium,” Pinker shows that “life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West but worldwide.”

The question I would like to raise in response to Pinker’s finding is: for whom?

Clearly, this blog is not the place to do so in detail. Let me simply respond to Pinker’s findings not in terms of a critique of his methodology which to me seems impeccable but in a more basic manner, namely that of his research’s meaning for us ordinary human beings, relatively few of whom will read the book and if so, find solid reassurance for our planet’s and our own future.

Indisputably, the question “is our world getting better or worse” is interesting from a purely academic viewpoint. Fully aware that I will be criticized for my viewpoint, I cannot help but wonder whether the 700,000 Rohingeas, totally impoverished and displaced from their destroyed homes in Myanmar, care about the world’s statistically proven betterment when their existential situation has spiraled into misery.

Does the hungering population of North Korea rejoice because of the alleged global betterment of life on the planet? Would the North Korean prisoners in that country’s Gulags feel elated knowing that on the basis of Pinker’s graphs, life, health. prosperity, safety, etc. are globally on the rise?

And then there is the Yemen catastrophe, visually presented on TV almost every evening. Little bodies with protruding ribs, arms and legs of bone covered with skin. Large eyes devoid of expression. Living tiny little dying bodies held in the arms of their helpless and hopeless moms. Tens of thousands of these little children no longer alive, killed by starvation or bombs, produced in our country, and unleashed on them by Saudi Arabia killers, our “allies.” Can the world’s reported increasing wellness mean anything at all to these poor and suffering human beings?

Thinking back to the years of my imprisonment under the Nazi regime, I wonder whether this kind of optimistic information about the improvement of life conditions on our planet as shown by Pinker’s graphs, would have encouraged me or made me downright happy.

The presence of abject poverty, hunger and suffering continues to be present not just in so-called Third World countries but even in this our own country. The gap between a tiny minority of wealthy people and even the middle class, let alone those on the bottom of the wealth pyramid, is growing from year to year. It seems that exploitation of those with a weak or no voice in society is steadily growing. Is this good reason for optimism?

While wars have been decimating whole populations even during my own life time, not so long ago there existed no threats of mass extinctions by the now ever present nuclear threat. That this threat is for real has been adequately demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WW II. Need I suggest that it is worrisome that today’s arsenals of nuclear devices, much more powerful in their destructive force, are held by an ever growing number of nations.

I fairly recently had a brief conversation with an intelligent and well educated person in our congregation. When our talk turned to our planet’s ecology and vulnerability from our irresponsible use of natural resources, her response was a flippant, “thanks to our human genius, we have always innovated or found new scientific approaches to avert catastrophe. Regardless of what the future will bring, we will be able to cope with it.” My response to her words was, mazal tov, in Yiddish, “Good Luck!”

Then there is the phenomenon of global warming which hits indiscriminately. Its ever growing devastating powers have been experienced the last few years in this and other countries. Because of its geographic ubiquity and variety in terms of climate change,earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, fire, floods and depletion of the planet’s vital natural resources, it is multinational willingness to cooperate that is crucially needed to deal with its destructive effects on human life now and in the future. Sadly, this kind of international willingness to cooperate is absent.

Is civilization in terminal decline? Needless to say, I hope not!

But unless we make an end to the reckless destruction of our liberal democratic institutions in this country and join in global cooperation, we will arrive at a point of no return.

So what do I think of Pinker’s book? In my opinion, it is academically sound but otherwise meaningless. The quality of goodness of life, if to be meaningful, can only be seen subjectively by one person or a relatively small group at a time. Rejoicing over the increasing betterment of the world cannot and will not make a difference in an individual’s life. Besides, how many people are ready to buy such a book, let alone read 556 pages of statistics, graphs and their explanations and profit from it? Sorry, professor Pinker!

While as a Jew I highly support education and critical thinking and so also enlightenment, I prefer the generic term to be written with a lower case “e.” Written with a capital “E” it refers to the historical period of the Enlightenment which, generally seen, brought liberation to the Jewish people but paradoxically also spelled out the beginning of a racially-based antisemitism that eventually led to the Holocaust.

To me it is unsettling to see that today there are strong forces in these United States as also in a large number of other countries that have jettisoned reason, science, humanism and so also progress. Will these movements to the political “right” prevail and lead humanity to destruction or will a mass awakening and true enlightenment overcome ignorance, darkness and ill-will and usher in a better world for all?

The answer to this crucial question depends to some extent on you and me.


Crime and Punishment, PART II.

In juxtaposing Kristallnacht, the epitome of evil and Veteran’s Day, the celebration of those who served in the US Armed Forces, we encounter a prime example of a clash between evil and goodness, the latter in form of human heroism and ultimate sacrifice in an effort to defeat evil.

Why the existence of evil? A perennial question, asked from the very beginning of civilization.

In my search for an explanation for the existence and persistence of evil three books helped me immensely toward an understanding of this phenomenon. Needless to say, my present comprehension is far from completely satisfying given the complexity of the problem.

Here are the titles of these helpful books in my quest to understand: James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide, Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler.

Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk and poet, labeling the Nazi killers as insane, allows us to believe that normal people, people like you and I, could never commit crimes like the Nazis did. Merton’s way of thinking might make us feel comfortable because it puts distance between those murderers and us. It suggests that you and I could never sink as low as the Nazi German murderers did.

But couldn’t we really? Aren’t also we vulnerable to thinking and doing evil? Is not our DNA the same as that of those Nazi antisemitic war criminals? A frightening thought indeed… So where does evil come from?

Let us begin with a brief look at the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 45:7 we read:

“I form light and create darkness, I make shalom (peace/wholeness) and I create ra (evil). I am the LORD, who do all these things.”

Theologians have done mental somersaults to make this statement defensible and acceptable. I have never considered their effort sufficiently persuasive. When one realizes, however, that ancient Israel’s prophets radically departed from the multiple Middle Eastern religions’ dualistic theologies to come up with and follow monotheism, it became necessary to give credence to the existence of a single god only rather than to two or more competitive gods, and thus to the belief that this single god had created the universe and all that it contains, and so also the realities of good and evil. This explains Isaiah’s statement concerning the origins of good and evil.

The talmudic sages, in their post-biblical teaching, suggest that in each baby born there exists an equal amount of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, an equal inclination toward good and toward evil. These sages knew that good and evil are not just acquired through life experiences but that we humans have an INNATE capacity for the good and for the bad. They taught that while the inclinations are in balance at birth, each person during her/his life must choose between nourishing or suppressing one or the other.

Both the rabbinic and the Christian church teachings, the latter explaining the existence of evil as original sin inherited via genetic continuity from Adam and Eve and their alleged first sinful act in the Garden of Eden, a teaching categorically rejected by Judaism, do have in common the belief that there is, in fact, a dark side to our human psyche.

Experiments at Yale University’s so-called Baby Lab, dealing with the phenomena of early childhood predispositions have demonstrated that babies not yet able to verbalize recognized and reached for a puppet showing kind behavior over a puppet exhibiting mean behavior. Experiments with older children suggested that when a wholesome socialization process had taken place, the children developed a healthy sense of altruism.

The good news is that our attitudes and dispositions are influenceable. We are not fatalistically determined. We are able to reorient ourselves depending on the quality of the influences we are exposed to. Let us reiterate here that inclination or predisposition must not be confused with irreversible fate. All that we have learned is that we all are capable of being good or becoming perpetrators of evil.

Primo Levi, brilliant author, keen observer of concentration camp life and survivor of Auschwitz writes:

“They (the guards) were made of the same cloth as we, they were average human beings averagely intelligent, averagely wicked. Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces.”

Having been there myself, I have no choice but to agree with Primo Levi.

We all, human beings that we are, are capable of doing evil things. This our capacity is an inherited one from the drive for survival of our ancestors – so-called hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene period (about 250,000 years ago) of development of homo sapiens.

Waller, one of the authors I mentioned above, sends the reader to the recently developed discipline of Evolutionary Psychology. He explains: Universal “reasoning circuits” drive our human behavior. These were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our ancestors. These circuits designed themselves in response to problems our ancestors faced, like detection of predators, decision making what is safe to eat, alliances for self-and tribal defense, selection of mates, etc. The development of these circuits took place gradually and experientially over very large periods of time. Waller suggests we think about this development as an unconscious process, something like a self-learning computer. This is not “intelligent design” that functions toward a predetermined goal and is driven in that direction by an intelligent mind or, say a deity.”

We should think of our brains as wired to deal with competition such as for instance competition for obtaining scarce resources like food. Competition of this kind led to conflict between individuals and groups. Collective defense became necessary.

This brings us to our human dark sides. We prefer kin to non-kin. Helping our kin by hurting our non-kin competitors can be advantageous. We all have needs and desires and so, to attain these, WE get into conflict with “them.”. It is “we” against “them.”

This is not to say that people are evil. This is merely to point out that we have acquired psychological mechanisms that make us CAPABLE of evil. When our reasoning circuits are activated by certain cultural, psychological and social triggers we can become evil.

What are some of these triggers?

Much depends on the society within which we live and that society’s world view. Societies hold world views which include presuppositions, intentions, meanings, rules, norms, values, principles, practices, etc. Societies hold core values which include judgments as to what is good and moral, evil, a-moral or immoral. Different societies provide us with a lens through which we look at our life and the lives that surround us. This lens enables us to make decisions for good or evil.

It is important to remember that cultural models do not dictate our human thought and behavior but can and do influence them.

Simplifying, it can be said that our American society values personal independence, freedom of choice, personal uniqueness and personal achievement. German Nazi society, on the other hand, focused on the group. In Fascism and Nazism the emphasis is on obedience, conformity, tradition, law and order. Here the group shapes the individual. Human identity is based on the group which defines itself as race, ethnicity, tribe, religion and nationality. Conflict arises when the self-definition of various groups produces in-groups which stand in tension with or oppose out-groups. It is again “we” against “them”.

The Nazis identified the Jews as the out-group that needed to be annihilated. The Jews’ cause was evil; the Nazis’ cause was sacred. Nazi Germany’s survival, Germans were taught, was dependent on the destruction of the Jewish race.

A rabbinic saying comes to mind: mitzvah goreret mitzvah ve-averah goreret averah – “A good deed leads to another good deed and a transgression leads to another transgression.”

When hatred of “the other,” i.e., the members of the out-group, is taught relentlessly from early age, lying and the doing of evil become what Hannah Arend in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem called “the banality of evil.” Lies and hatred become something that anchor themselves deep in the human psyche until brutality and murder become common activities. They become the “daily normal.” Euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing, evacuation, resettlement, final solution” and others become part of daily conversation and nothing evil is imputed to these terms which, in reality, are facades for murder.

The descent into the hell of evil is gradual. But once arrived there it is very hard to escape. The process of dehumanization as witnessed in history and also by myself in the Holocaust, and how such dehumanizing of perfectly normal innocent human beings can be achieved by means of psychological manipulation and coercion, has been demonstrated experimentally by the “Milgram’s Experiment” at Yale University and the “Stanford Prison Experiment” and others.

James Waller makes the point that evil persons are very often not the product of WHO they are but of WHERE they are. They come gradually under the influence of evil social forces and are pulled into their vortex. By participating in evil, evil embeds itself in their very being and takes over.

This recognition does not excuse the doing of extraordinary evil. Perpetrators cannot be absolved by the notion that others under similar conditions have done or would be doing the same. It has been documented that there were men and women during the Holocaust who refused to be killers and stopped participating in their units’ murderous activities. Perpetrators retain full moral and legal responsibility for the atrocities they commit.

How can we, as individuals and as a society, cultivate the sensibilities that will counteract the forces that lead to the commission of brutalities, dehumanizing,  genocide and mass killings?

I believe that honest education has humanizing effects. When proper education is internalized and applied, such education can be a powerful antidote to personal and collective inhumanity. Without being able to go into the details of what such an education entails, let me suggest that helping young people think critically is the most important element of such an education. Encouraging students to ask “why” is, in my opinion, the first step toward endowing them with the ability to distinguish truths from half-truths and downright lies, the latter being something we are being subjected to on a daily basis, these days.

In my opinion, the only way toward eliminating evil thought and evil actions depends on a serious rethinking of our educational process with emphasis on the absolute necessity of ethical behavior.